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District budget and Crandall contract approved

The Lake Superior School District met on June 13 at Two Harbors High School, with all board members present.

To begin, Forrest Johnson, who has been working for Lake County Health and Human Services under a grant from the Statewide Health Improvement Program, presented an overview of the program's efforts to increase levels of physical activity and health among students in Two Harbors schools. SHIP's primary initiative, Safe Routes to School was planned and took place May 6-9. During those days, Johnson said that 260 kids walked or bicycled to school. Students living outside of town were dropped at designated sites and walked the remaining distance to school. Younger students were accompanied by older mentors, forming "walking school buses." Johnson declared the four-day event a success with over 2/3 student participation and just one scraped knee. He also said that teachers reported greater attentiveness in the classroom among students who walked or biked to school. Johnson suggested that similar events of longer duration - 48 days -- be planned for next school year - fall and spring - and asked that the board pass a resolution in support of the plan.

"There's no debate about why we're promoting this plan," he said, pointing to the increasing rates of childhood obesity and inactivity in the U.S. He also outlined efforts he's made to enlist more volunteers to help with the proposed plan.

"Is there any thought of doing anything up (in Silver Bay)? This is a board of education for the district, not just Two Harbors," said board president, Dwight Moe.

"At some point with SHIP, we can do some mapping. The goal is a district wide effort," assured Johnson.

Leo Babeu made a motion to support the plan Johnson described, but said that any expenses would be taken up as separate issues if they arose.

"We won't drop anything on you," Johnson promised. The motion carried with unanimous support.

Silver Bay City Administrator Lana Fralich, requested $10,000 from the district to help cover maintenance costs for her city's recreational facilities. The arena, ball fields and tennis courts are all used by district students, and heretofore, the cost of upkeep and upgrades has been absorbed by the city of Silver Bay.

"I'm of the opinion that we should go along with this," said Moe.

"What happens when the Two Harbors rec department comes and asks for money?" asked board member Tom Burns.

"I think we'd have to ask what they're going to do with the money, that's my opinion," returned Moe.

"We're way past due, our karmic debt is great," observed Babeu. Fralich said that this was the first time in at least five years that she has come before the school district with a request for money and that she did not anticipate a similar request next year. A motion was made to grant the request; it carried unanimously.

Details were ironed out and the budget was approved for summer early childhood special education services for five children in the district. The services, which are mandated by law, are reimbursed by two-thirds through federal funding. A unanimous motion carried to hire a teacher, two para-professionals, a driver and a nurse to provide the services.

The district's annual budget came next. After crunching the numbers, business manager Lance Takkunen announced that the district expenses will outweigh revenues, with the greatest gap --$868,658 -- in the general fund. In a conversation with the Lake County News-Chronicle on Monday, he said the board has been trying to avoid cuts to programming to decrease the debt, since cuts to programming translate to cuts in staffing. Instead, Takkunen said the district is looking to close the gap in other ways. First, the recent ten cent per ton increase in the taconite tax will result in $150,000 more LSSD's coffers in August. Second, but farther in the future, the district is looking forward to another $150,000 -- its cut of the Minnesota legislature's recently passed increases to school funding. That money, however, will not come its way until fiscal year 2015, said Takkunen. Also on the table is an operating referendum to fill budget gaps.

Another possibility lies in the education innovations partnership, membership for which the district voted to spend $6000 in the next fiscal year. The EIP is an initiative to develop a regional integrated learning model for the region. It was proposed by the Blandin Foundation and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. An online report about the EIP describes the initiative's three foci:

· A teaching, learning and leadership academy

· The development of vehicles for personalized or individual learning

· The implementation of a regional technology plan.

LSSD board member Cyndi Ryder said that, in effect, the EIP is a means to keep the considerable pool of IRRRB money in the region - where it was generated -- so it can be used to promote education and growth.

In the meantime, asked how the district would manage operations with the existing deficit, Ryder said it would rely on savings to bridge the gap.

"There is a fund balance. We're going to lean on savings that we've got on hand," she said, adding that the district made sound financial decisions in previous years, so "we have a little buffer, but not much."

The board voted to accept the proposed budget and also voted to become an EIP member. The $6000 payment for membership dues is not required until next fiscal year.

Next on the agenda was the district's contract with superintendent, Bill Crandall. Board members voted to approve a salary of $126,709. A figure of $12,150 was approved for health care benefits, however the district and Crandall agreed that this amount was not cast in stone.

The issue of concern for the board involved a provision of the Affordable Care Act due to take effect in 2014. The act would require the district to offer the same level of health insurance coverage to other non-union employees as it does to Crandall. With labor negotiations looming, the district and Crandall agreed to revisit the health benefits issue at a later date.

"We're agreeing that we're going to revisit this," said Babeu to clarify. The board voted unanimously to approve the contract. Later, the board also voted to continue the contract of THHS assistant principal Jay Belcastro.

Dr. Brenda Casselius, Minnesota Education Commissioner, issued a decision in the district's petition to keep the shortened week structure. She granted the four-day week structure for one more year, but is not in favor of its continuation beyond the 2013-14 school year.

"It's not a closed topic," said Crandall. Ryder agreed.

"I think we need to fight if we decide this is working for us as a rural school district," she suggested.

Finally, the board said goodbye to Jack Pichotta. Pichotta and wife, Genea will be pulling up stakes and moving to Cloquet, where Jack once taught school. The couple recently purchased a home there, but Pichotta promised he would not be a stranger to Lake County.

"I'm going to miss all of you. The dynamics of the board are pretty nice," he said, adding, "I'm sure we'll be back up in the Finland area more often than you'd think," he said.

The board voted to accept his resignation with regrets.

"Unfortunately, the motion carried," said Moe.